Wild elephants in Britain? Rhinoceros? Hippos? George Monbiot certainly knows how to grab the attention with ideas that are both outrageous and thought-provoking. In his recent book Feral and in a talk I attended at the Edinburgh International Book Festival he argues that as the bones of such huge beasts have been found under London and our trees and shrubs are adapted to cope with such big browsing mammals we should consider reintroducing them. That quickly grabs the readers or listeners attention.
Monbiot is very serious though. Perhaps not about those giant creatures, at least not yet, but definitely about the need for rewilding, including bringing back previous inhabitants – boar, beaver and lynx the more likely ones to start with. He’s a good speaker and the book festival talk summed up the main points of the book in a passionate and stirring manner. The book itself I’d enjoyed reading a month earlier, during my Scottish Watershed Walk, while lying in my shelter in the evenings, with wind, rain and the call of birds the only sounds. Monbiot mixes tales of his own outdoor adventures, on foot and in kayak, with detailed arguments and information on how impoverished the natural world in Britain is today and how much richer it could be. He also shows how hard it can be to recognise this due to the wonderfully named ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, which basically says that we perceive the world as it was when we were young as the ideal state. So we see that the natural world isn’t as diverse as it was but not that it was already depleted in our youth and that trying to recreate that is still aiming for a degraded ecosystem.
Monbiot’s answer to this is rewilding – by which he means leaving nature alone and accepting however it develops. The only human interference he advocates is the reintroduction of missing animals. Indeed, in places in the book he berates conservationists for trying to manage nature. I’m with him here. Rewilding will occur naturally if allowed to. The results might not be as expected or even desired but it will be wild nature.
The ideas in the book are not particularly new. I enjoyed Monbiot’s polemic against sheep and the damage they do to the uplands but he’s only echoing John Muir, who called them ‘hoofed locusts’ back in the late nineteenth century after seeing the devastation they wreaked on meadows in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Monbiot’s ‘wet desert’ description of the Welsh hills follows on from Frank Fraser Darling’s use of the phrase to describe the Scottish Highlands back in the 1940s. It was from my own visit to the Sierra Nevada and from reading Muir and Fraser Darling that I learnt how to overcome ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. Hiking through the Sierras I discovered what a really wild forest was like. Until I read Fraser Darling’s The Highlands and Islands in the Collins New Naturalist series I thought the Scottish hills to be pristine wilderness that should be preserved as they were. Only after seeing the Sierra woods and reading about overgrazing by sheep and deer did I see just how degraded much of the Scottish Highlands have become.
The importance of Monbiot’s book, which is well-written, entertaining and well worth reading, lies in part in his prominence as a campaigning journalist, which means that the ideas it contains will receive far more prominence than when expressed by less well-known writers. The ideas are expressed well too. We need more writing like this.